Backtracking on a prominent campaign pledge, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told angry residents of Okinawa on Tuesday that it was unrealistic to expect the United States to move its entire Marine Corps air base off the island.
Mr. Hatoyama’s government could hang in the balance. He has pledged to come up with a plan by the end of this month to relocate the Marine air base and resolve a stubborn problem that has created months of discord with Washington. His delays and apparent flip-flopping on the issue have fed a growing feeling of disappointment in the prime minister’s leadership, driving his approval ratings below 30 percent.
Visiting Okinawa for the first time since becoming prime minister, Mr. Hatoyama asked residents to entertain a compromise that would keep some of the functions of the base on the island while the government explored moving some facilities elsewhere.
“Realistically speaking, it is impossible” to move the entire base, called Futenma, off the island, he said. “We’re facing a situation that is realistically difficult to move everything out of the prefecture. We must ask the people of Okinawa to share the burden.”
But Okinawans seemed in no mood for burden-sharing, heckling him after he met with local officials. “Shame on you!” one man shouted.
During the campaign for last summer’s election, in which his Democratic Party dislodged the Liberal Democrats who had ruled Japan almost continuously for more than 50 years, Mr. Hatoyama called for adjusting a 2006 agreement with the United States, which stations about 50,000 troops in Japan. Under that plan, Futenma was to be moved to a less crowded part of Okinawa to address local concerns over noise, air pollution and safety.
But the Obama administration pushed back, with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates apparently refusing to entertain any thought of reopening the agreement. The standoff threatened to open the first breach in the two countries’ post-World War II security alliance. Later, during a trip to Japan, President Obama smoothed things over, reluctantly agreeing to consider Mr. Hatoyama’s proposals.
While Mr. Hatoyama has tried to accommodate the competing desires of the Americans and local residents, he finally had to admit that it could not be done. On Tuesday, Mr. Hatoyama had the unpleasant task of delivering the bad news, acknowledging that moving the base off Okinawa was unrealistic.
“When we consider the presence of North Korea and the state of the wider region, it is clear that we must maintain the Japan-U.S. alliance as a deterrent force, and that we must ask Okinawa to bear some of that burden,” he said after the meeting with local leaders.
“It has become clear from our negotiations with the Americans that we cannot ask them to relocate the base to too far-flung a location,” he said.
Mr. Hatoyama still has not divulged the specifics of his plan. But it is widely expected that it will involve the small island of Tokunoshima, where since January, when word got out, residents have marshaled their resources for a fight.
Tokunoshima, a small, semitropical island located between Okinawa and Japan’s main islands and blanketed with fields of sugar cane, was mentioned as a possible site for training activities and up to 1,000 of Futenma’s 2,500 Marines, said Takeshi Tokuda, the island’s representative in the lower house of Parliament, who was briefed on the plan.
But enraged islanders vowed that the move would never happen. “If he comes, our old people and mothers with children will sit in the street to block his way,” Seiichi Yoshitama, 65, a coffee farmer, said of Mr. Hatoyama. “We’ll even use our fighting bulls to stop him.”
They have held a series of increasingly large anti-base rallies, the largest on April 18, when more than half of the island’s 26,000 residents gathered, organizers said.
The mood on Tokunoshima is now overwhelmingly against the plan. The main road along the coast is lined with hand-painted signs saying “No Base!” The mayors of the island’s three towns agreed on Saturday to meet with the prime minister, but only to express their opposition in person, they say.
On Tokunoshima, as opposed to Okinawa, the opposition is driven by more than just a simple case of not-in-my-backyard syndrome, political experts and local residents say. The islanders say they do not want to end up like Okinawa, where there is widespread discontent over the American bases’ crime and noise. Older residents also have bitter memories of the war and its aftermath, when islanders staged hunger strikes against the American occupiers.
Residents and experts say Mr. Hatoyama’s troubles also reflect a weakening of Tokyo’s ability to impose its will on Japan’s regions. The Liberal Democratic Party relied on generous public works spending and back-room bargains to push through big projects like this one. Mr. Hatoyama, who rode to power with vows to cut wasteful spending and increase transparency in politics, may find his ability to make deals thwarted by such changes.
“It’s all more fluid now at the end of the L.D.P. era,” said Akira Okubo, mayor of Isen, one of Tokunoshima’s towns. “The center is weakening in Japan, and that gives us more freedom at the fringes.”
Not all islanders are against the base. A group of business owners led by Hidetada Maeda, an undertaker and former town council chairman in Amagi, another of Tokunoshima’s towns, released a list last week of incentives for accepting the base. They included subsidies for tourism and forgiveness of the $250 million debt of the island’s towns.
“This is a one-in-a-thousand chance to revitalize our island,” said Mr. Maeda, 62.
Most islanders, however, said they did not want economic incentives, which they said would only make their island dependent on Tokyo. “Once you start accepting that development money, it becomes addictive, like a drug,” said Koichi Tokuda, who owns a factory that makes vinegar from sugar cane. “We are not rich, but we are self-sufficient. We want to stay that way.”